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Monday, December 30, 2013

Walter Gropius

The cantilevered stairway, Alan W. Frank House, Pittsburgh, 1939-40,
Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer
“There is no finality in architecture – only continuous change.”
                                                                                                       --Walter Gropius
It's very likely that no one architect has influenced how we view and define "modern" more than Walter Gropius. He overshadows some pretty big names, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, even his German mentor, Peter Behrens, in this regard. Yet the man, in his entire career is credited with the design of less than two dozen buildings. Thus Gropius influenced rather than built. He was a teaching architect who, in fact, could not draw. In college, he hired a fellow student to draw for him. It was a shortcoming that plagued him his entire career. However, architectural illustrators are a deutschmark a dozen, while visionary architects are priceless. That was apparently the rational when Peter Behrens hired Gropius into his firm in 1908. There he worked elbow to elbow with future legends such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolph Meyer, and other cutting-edge German designers breaking new ground in the area of industrial design--factories, office buildings, and the like.
Faguswerk Factory, 1911-13, Walter Gropius, Adolph Meyer, architects.
Walter Gropius and his door handle.
It was a shortlived association. In 1910, Gropius and Meyer started their own firm in Berlin. Their first commission was for the Faguswerk factory (above) which made wooden "feet" around which shoes were built. The design broke new ground with it's all-glass facade, steel frame, "curtain" walls, and lack of structural corners. However, Gropius architectural career soon came under assault from history. WW I intruded. Come 1914, the budding young architect, an army reservist, was off to fight on the Western Front where he was wounded and nearly died.
The Bauhaus-designed Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany, 1925.
After the war, in the turbulent years of Germany's Wiemar Republic, Gropius was chosen to lead the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, which he soon transformed into the famous Bauhaus School of Industrial Design. In a very short time (the school moved to Dessau in 1925) Gropius brought on board instructors such as Paul Klee, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, and Wassily Kandinsky. The famous Gropius door handle (above, left) dates from this period (1923). After the Bauhaus move to Dessau, Gropius was involved in the design of large-scale housing complexes in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau.

The Gropius House, 1938, Lincoln, Mass.
In 1934, seeing the Nazi handwriting on the wall, Gropius literally sneaked out of Germany to Italy, thence to England for a time, then in 1937, to the United States and Harvard University. There he headed the Harvard Graduate School of Design and went into businss with his protege, Marcel Breuer. Their first commission, in 1938, was Gropius' own home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, followed by the Alan W. Frank House (1939-40) in Pittsburgh (top). Together, these two strikingly modern homes served to, in large part, bring the International Style (a term Gropius disdained) to America. Later, in 1945, Gropius teamed up with seven younger architects to form The Architects' Collaborative (TAC).

The Harvard Graduate Center (Story Hall), 1949-50, Walter Gropius and TAC.

The JFK Federal Building, 1963-66,
Boston, Mass, Walter Gropius and TAC.
Together, Gropius and TAC was responsible for the design of the Harvard Graduate Center (above), the first college campus building in the U.S. to embrace modern style architecture. The firm's works also included several Boston area schools and hospitals, the University of Baghdad, the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, the Pan-Am Building (now the Metlife Building) in New York, the J.F.K. Federal Building in Boston (left, 1963-66), a synagogue in Baltimore, and several projects in Germany. Walter Gropius died in 1969 at the age of eighty-six. TAC died in 1995, bankrupt at the age of forty.


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